OPINION | Move Damian Willemse away from No 10 - 'boring' is the SA way

Damian Willemse had a poor day at the office
Damian Willemse had a poor day at the office
  • Damian Willemse should be moved from the flyhalf position to better suit his skill-set.
  • One of the main reasons behind such a radical thought is the fact that South African rugby does not have a good track record for getting the best out of more mercurial playmakers.
  • Flyhalf is not a be-all and end-all position in local rugby and our most successful ones can be perceived as "boring".

Damian Willemse's pronounced struggle at Newlands during last weekend's Springbok Showdown deserves scrutiny.

Some will, rightly, argue that the 22-year-old flyhalf's performance could've been a proverbial off-day, where everything conspired against him.

It's also true that it was only his second competitive match in almost seven months.

However, judgement on Willemse is more complicated because his showing wasn't an isolated incident.

Since breaking into the Springbok squad in mid-2018, on the back of a reasonably productive Super Rugby campaign in the No 10 jersey with the Stormers, he's been wayward.

Perhaps it's been the contrasting messages he's received from his coaches at national and franchise level.

The Bok setup believes his immediate international future lies at fullback but he's been backed close to the hilt at pivot for the Stormers.

Regardless, Willemse has looked distinctly uncomfortable, invariably rushing his decision-making and putting himself under so much self-imposed pressure that even his prolific kicking boot has been suffering.

Frankly, the Damian Willemse of 2020 doesn't look like a flyhalf.

The obvious argument here is to switch him back to fullback, where he has more time and space and, consequently, an opportunity to regain some confidence.

While I'm of the belief that this should happen, I'd take the process a step further and permanently keep him away from the No 10 jersey.

South African rugby doesn't have a good track record when it comes to helping gifted pivots reaching their full potential.

Gaffie du Toit, Johan Goosen, Ruan Pienaar, Pat Lambie and to a lesser extent Andre Pretorius are all examples of local flyhalves who never quite took the game by the scruff of the neck at the highest level.

An honorable exception is Elton Jantjies, whose class and maturity has seen him embrace the fact that if he's going to have an international future, he'll need to play within himself.

That was on show fully at Newlands last Saturday, where he didn't deliver any of the fireworks associated with him and the Lions and focused on kicking accurately and distributing effectively.

Local rugby's struggle to get the best out of its more mercurial playmakers is down to a truth that is embraced by our most astute coaches but not the broader rugby-loving public: flyhalf has never really been a be-all and end-all position in South Africa.

Think of the most successful flyhalves in Springbok history post-isolation.

Joel Stransky won a World Cup, as did Butch James and Handre Pollard.

Henry Honiball, Morne Steyn and Jaco van der Westhuyzen - a retreaded fullback - won Tri Nations titles.

Each of these men has or had their special qualities but none of them could be classified as outrageously gifted in terms of attacking verve and creativity.

The quintessential accomplished South African flyhalf is, crudely put, a kicker, passer and catcher.

Pollard, with his imposing frame, will hit a gap at times when attacking the line but he's not a regular playmaker in the Green-and-Gold.

In the South African context, the "brains" behind the most slick and successful teams - with the exception of Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin's Lions - are scrumhalves and inside centres.

Stransky had a flyhalf outside him in Hennie le Roux.

James and Steyn were inspired by the peerless Fourie du Preez as halfback partner and Jean de Villiers in the No 12 jersey.

Even last year's Springbok vintage had Faf de Klerk and a roaming Willie le Roux in more prominent decision-making roles than Pollard.

It's arguably one of the reasons why Jake White persists with the evergreen Steyn as his first-choice 10 at the Bulls.

He's paying him for the player he is now, at 36, a guy who knows what he can and can't do.

The Bulls' brilliant 49-28 victory over the Sharks at Super Fan Saturday included seven tries.

None of them came from a sparkling break from their pivot … but Stedman Gans' try came from a pinpoint up-and-under from Steyn that was superbly chased by Cornal Hendricks.

That's the actual joy of the South African way - pleasing rugby doesn't require a genius flyhalf.

And here's where the Willemse point becomes pertinent again.

Too many of his traits - twinkle toes, strong physique and relish for creativity - suggest that he could be wasted in the No 10 jersey.

But he might be a very good option at 12, where he can let the juices simmer … and have a little more time to execute those ideas.

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